Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bored to Death: INFERNO

There are worse movies than Inferno, movies so inept, confused, ill-considered, or offensive they’re impossible to defend let alone sit through. But that makes it all the more depressing to realize Inferno is the only thing a movie can be that’s worse than bad. It is boring. I don’t mean to say it is slow or off-putting or strange or lazy. No, it is just deafeningly empty from the first frame to the last, completely devoid of interest or entertainment. If it was a bad movie it could at least kick up ludicrous silliness or something so mind-bogglingly tone deaf it’d be worth unpacking. Here we simply have a movie with no real reason to exist, incapable of making an argument for itself. It merely is, playing out with all the excitement and urgency of a talented group of Hollywood craftspeople signing off on a contractual obligation. It’s the kind of movie so tediously uninteresting you wonder if it was possible everyone was sleepwalking behind the scenes, or maybe trading sightseeing tips for their European downtime on Sony’s dime.

Clearly a commercial commitment, Sony couldn’t indefinitely sit on the rights to Dan Brown’s successful books about Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, not after director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks turned them into two good-sized hits already. The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) were not great thrillers, but at least they had their pulpy fun pretending their plot mechanics were wrapped in learning, with history lectures and Catholic conspiracy. Any movies that can feature both lengthy art appreciation monologues and Paul Bettany as a self-flagellating albino monk (in the first) or Ewan McGregor as a Cardinal parachuting out of an exploding helicopter (in the second) can’t be all bad. These were fairly self-serious works, B-movies impressed by their own footnotes and inflated with big budgets and big stars. Still, nothing prepared me for how exhausted and joyless Inferno was. Compared to this new film, its predecessors are models of humble, slight, and economical filmmaking. This one stumbles through an endless bleary plot without a single second of rooting interest, believable stakes, or photographic interest. 

It starts with Langdon (Hanks) waking up in a Florence hospital suffering amnesia from a head wound. His doctor (Felicity Jones) tells him he was attacked. Confused and suffering hallucinogenic flashes of horror imagery – the movie takes glum grotesqueries as humdrum – Langdon flees with his caretaker after a policewoman opens fire on them. Now he must remember why he’s now wrapped up in a globetrotting art-adjacent adventure, racing to prevent an apocalyptic event. Because he’s done sort of thing twice before he’s well equipped to get up to speed as he fumbles around the scrambled passages of his mind. Maybe it has something to do with the visual representation of Dante’s Inferno he finds in his pocket, and which has been altered to include clues to a hidden cache of plague virus that would wipe out 95% of the world’s population if unleashed. You can see why the World Health Organization, which this movie imagines operates as an international SWAT team, is hot on their trail. The mystery is why they think Langdon has something to do with it.

I can forgive many an incredulously strained plot, but see if you can follow this. Say you were a brilliant but eccentric sociopathic billionaire scientist with a goal of reversing the world’s overpopulation with your custom-made plague. You’ve hidden it in a bag that’ll blow up on a certain day and time. Would you: A.) tell no one, sit back quietly, and let it do its thing; or B.) throw yourself off a building, leaving behind an elaborate set of art-history scavenger hunt clues leading to your biological weapon of mass destruction? I get when Langdon is investigating a conspiracy with historical roots why sussing out clues in paintings and monuments is a helpful strategy, but why would Inferno’s villain (Ben Foster) create new clues on old art? If he was really intent on kickstarting the apocalypse, why leave room for a professor to figure it out and stop you? There’s little motivation behind anyone’s behavior in this movie, including WHO agents (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Omar Sy) and a mysterious fixer whose office is aboard a freighter in the Adriatic (Irrfan Khan). They change sides a couple times each for seemingly no reason other than cheap surprise.

Inferno is a movie that’ll test a lot of assumptions. Think between Ron Howard directing and David Koepp writing they could surely cobble together a half-interesting story? Think national treasure Tom Hanks could reliably deploy his star power? Think a supporting cast of fine actors could bring something to the table? Think some solid, reliable Hollywood craft – cinematography from occasional Howard collaborator Salvatore Totino, score from the busy Hans Zimmer – could at least render a movie watchable? Prepare to be disappointed. It’s an entire movie of people going through the motions. It can’t even make stunning locales in Florence, Venice, and Istanbul look like the good museum-hopping travelogue thriller it could’ve been. The movie is cramped and ugly – maybe the better to emphasize its villain’s complaint about too many people? – and the way the plot unfolds around an amnesiac hero is treated for mere confusion. This only serves to hobble what should be a swaggering Hanks by making him squint and stagger while reading clues to the other characters, dragged along by the boring plot without clear drive or goals of his own. He can’t remember why he’s there or why he should care, and I could relate. The only reason to see this movie is if you want a dark room in which you could nap for a couple hours.

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